I love the Widow of Ephesus story both because of its clever punch line and its Epicurean philosophy. In the novel, it is told by Eumolpus to soothe tensions after an argument on Lichas’ ship (sections 111-112). In Fellini’s film, it is told by Hermeros, the rich freedman who earlier berated Encolpius…
The trip recalls the elites’ earlier (equally joyless) trek into the countryside to Trimalchio’s villa. There is little music (the musicians from the feast are along and playing) and the sound of the wind. The pampered elite definitely seem to be out of their element in the wilds of rough nature. They’re also a bit drunk.
“Only a few emperors…” – In the novel, the party gets out of hand at one point when a group of rowdy slaves descend upon the dining room and begin to feast (section 70ff.). Trimalchio is tolerant of including them since he was a former slave himself, but his elite guests are put off. He mollifies them by mentioning how generous he will be in his will to everyone. The document is brought and read aloud. Habinnas (the late guest with the wife who carries on with Fortunata) is building Trimalchio’s impressive tomb. They begin to talk about all of the amenities and decorations Trimalchio wants to include. They do not actually go to the structure. However, Fellini probably felt as if he needed a change of scene.
“And his favorite puppy dog” – The litany of things Habinnas (Appena in Italian) says are included come from Trimalchio’s demands in the novel (section 71).
As the guests enter, the worker slaves slowly wake up (invoking the dreamlike quality of this episode). They are there because the tomb is still being built (note the rough slabs of marble in the background).
Epitaph – This mainly comes from the novel, although it is shortened here. The philosopher line is supposed to be a joke of Petronius’.
“Act like you’re guests at my funeral banquet” – In the novel, several things happen between Trimalchio’s description of his tomb and the mock wake, but Fellini naturally combines them into a single scene. The fact that Trimalchio wants to see how people will behave when he is gone is part of his colossal ego. In the novel, it is played as a disgusting display of a very drunk Trimalchio. It gets so out of control that the fire brigade breaks in, thinking the noise means the house is on fire. Encolpius and his friends take advantage of the commotion to take their leave.
Scintilla and Fortunata – While Trimalchio is preoccupied, Scintilla pulls Fortunata behind some marble slabs and the two make out. The camera first shows the two in the background with a few men in the foreground. It then pans, with the women, and comes to rest on a group of women together, one of which looks boldly at the camera. Through the shot composition, Scintilla literally pulls Foruntata away from the men over to the side with the women only. This exchange was not in the original script.
Habinnas has to get the crowd of slaves chanting Trimalchio’s name. The over-the-top histrionics is undercut again by the split show showing the mourning of the elites and the making out of Fortunata and Scintilla.
Note how, yet again, we know what is going on (Fortuanta and Scintilla are making out), but their gestures are strange and unnaturally rhythmic. We understand, yet we don’t completely understand.
“I want to give you a gift” – The insincerity of the mourners is shown once Trimalchio begins to distribute gifts. They have to be forcibly restrained. Trimalchio explodes in anger. This is all the creation of Fellini, possibly giving us a cynical wink.
Hermeros’s story – Again we get loud noise and chaos (Trimalchio and guests yelling) followed by calm (Hermeros beginning his story in possession of everyone’s attention- even the elite woman being sick).
Stories within a story were a common motif in ancient literature going all the way back to Homer. Apart from the Satyricon, the Golden Ass is another Roman novel that employs this nested structure. Fellini has Hermeros justify the tale by connecting it to the role of death (and tombs) in the plot. He begins by addressing the crowd, but ends up looking at the camera and us.
The story is simplified from the one told in the novel but is mostly the same. In the novel, the widow is not just virtuous, but fanatical about her devotion to her husband. This absolutism sets up, in a fairy-tale way, the punchline of the story. In the film, the widow is much more human and realistic.
As Fellini cuts to a depiction of the story Hermeros is telling, he is employing a very traditional filmic technique. Hermeros continues as voice-over narration, although this is used sparingly. Most of the story is told visually. This is probably one of the most conventional parts of the film, encountered when we have our first story within a story moment. In the original script, there was much more dialogue between the characters which Fellini wisely jettisoned.
The Widow of Ephesus – Ephesus was a highly cultured Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It came under Roman control in the first century BCE. In the film, the dress of the characters highlights the Greek nature of the story.
The funeral procession walks past a mound evocative of a burial tumulus, decorated with thin jars. Some of these are set upside down and are meant to represent Roman cremation jars, although here they look more like amphorae. He might also be trying to suggest lekythoi which were Greek funerary offering jars.
In Roman society, reddish-brown wool was the common color of mourning clothes. Here, Fellini updates it to the modern black. This contrasts nicely with the white shroud on the husband, especially in the interior tomb shot.
“Was placed in the crypt” – In the novel, the widow is conducting the wake at her home, which was more the custom. Fellini relocates her to a tomb (literally, Trimalchio’s tomb) to provide a connection.
“You must live…” – The words of the soldier more or less come from the novel, although they are simplified here. In the film, the soldier’s compassion seems genuine, and it is the woman who initiates the flirting. In the novel there is the suggestion that from the beginning that the soldier is after her virtue, and the widow has to be expertly coaxed.
In the film, when she gives the soldier that look from under her eyelids, Fellini is showing his mastery of traditional narrative structures in film. No words are spoken but we understand exactly what is going on. In the middle of the first kiss she looks over to her husband, but the soldier physically brings her attention back to him. In this self-contained story, we have everything we need- a narrator who informs us of the customs of these people and what is normal for them, as well as a display of “universal” human emotions and drives. When Fellini wants to use these traditional and realistic techniques, he can employ them expertly. And for us as an audience, this simple, calm, and clever vignette is a welcome bit of normality among the alien nature of the movie.
Note that Fellini works another favorite composition shot. The widow looks up from shot left. The film cuts to the soldier looking back at her, shot right. Neither are centered, but their positions are underscored by the composition. In the next shot, they are brought together.
In the novel, they sleep together three nights in a row. In the film, it takes only one time. The demeanor of the widow is greatly changed (still shot left) as is her appearance. The pale makeup is gone. Before her head was obscured by a thick veil. Now she combs and arranges her exposed hair. Appearance matters again for her. All of this is told to us just by the visuals and the acting.
The Thief’s Family – In the novel, one of the crucified bodies was taken away by its family for proper burial rites. As the soldier tells her what is wrong, he is in shadow shot right. She crosses to him. They are now in this together.
“Better to hang a dead husband…” – In the film, the two look over at the (off-center) body, and immediately the audience is amused. We know what they intend to do, since we are probably rooting for the young lovers by this point. Fellini has got us on their side. Their plan is brought to a finale by the famous last line: “Better to hang a dead husband, than to lose a living lover.” It is repeated by Hermeros for emphasis as the actors carry the body out of shot and we return to the stranger, less realistic, world of the main film.
In the novel, the ending of the story is slightly different, as is its purpose. In the film, the focus is on the cleverness of the young lovers, and their success at finding a solution to their problem that exemplifies the soldier’s advice of seeking pleasure. The dead husband will be mistaken for the missing thief and everything will be ok. In the novel, the couple is not as successful, and the final laugh line is about the rest of the town trying to figure out how a dead man crawled out of his tomb and up on a cross.
(Up Next: Satyricon 15 – Scene IX: Eumolpus’ Bequest)